(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
In the third and most recent Guttman Center Survey, “A Portrait of Israeli
Jews,” done in 2009 and published in 2012, it was not uncommon to find that some
who scored low on religious observance scored relatively high on religious
belief. This included those who identified themselves as secular or
For example only 40 percent of the total sample stated
that they observe religious tradition meticulously or to a great extent. At the
same time, 80% of all those surveyed believe in God; the same percentage believe
that good deeds are rewarded; 77% believe that a higher power governs the world;
72% believe that prayer can help one escape a bad situation; 56% believe in the
world to come and life after death; and 51% believe in the coming of the
Here are some of my informal observations, which might serve as
anecdotal samples of this seeming paradox: The Israeli who is quick to claim in
parlor discussion that he or she is not only an atheist but a “complete and
total, without doubt, pure” atheist. Upon further discussion, his confession of
unbelief has more to do with opposition to religious coercion in civil life
rather than any well-formed theological or philosophical worldviews.
Israeli who is not religious in terms of observance but who, if pressed, will
confess to a vague belief in the afterlife and an even stronger belief that God
watches over us, especially if we call upon Him from time to time through
personal prayer and in moments of great distress; most notably when awaiting the
results of medical tests.
There is a saying that goes something like
this: A Polish Jew doesn’t believe in God – but is scared to death of Him. I
believe this refers equally to secular Israeli Jews.
I can see signs of
religious trends emerging among those Israeli Jews who identify themselves as
non-religious. These trends may not fit into the categories of “Orthodox,”
“Humanistic,” “Conservative” or “Reform.”
The failure of socialist
Zionist civil religion to meet the existential needs of many Israelis after the
founding generation of the state may offer us a clue to the reasons for these
emerging trends. Socialist Zionism, which was instrumental in founding the
modern State of Israel through waves of pre-state immigration, especially the
second and third aliyot, was largely composed of young idealists from Eastern
Europe. Many of these socialist idealists followed the Marxist tradition, which
meant an almost obligatory disdain for religion.
Socialist Zionism itself
can be looked upon as almost a religion, with its own beliefs, rituals, saints,
ideas of salvation and an “end of days” messianic future. The only thing
differentiating it from a traditional religion is the absence of a belief in God
and the supernatural, including the afterlife. Individual immortality was denied
and instead replaced with the idea of the collective “afterlife” in the social
body of the Jewish people returned to the Land of Israel.
If we look to
popular culture, particularly songs made popular just before, during or
immediately after wars, we can detect an interesting evolution from an emphasis
on civil religion to an opening to God-based references.
This change is
evident in the words of the composer of three of these songs, Naomi
1967 – The Six Day War – “Jerusalem of Gold” (Yerushalayim Shel
Zahav) – no reference to God. Holy places and symbols from the Bible are used in
the context of the sacred history of a people rather than otherworldly
1973 – The Yom Kippur War – “Let it Be” (Lu Yehi) –
Although God is not directly mentioned, the song is in the form of a communal
prayer of supplication.
1982 – The First Lebanon War – “For All These
Things” (Al Kol Eleh) – God is mentioned directly in this song, which is written
from the perspective of an individual praying to God.
I BELIEVE that
these songs indicate a transition from the secular to the religious and a
transition from the communal to the individual.
And, more strikingly, a
movement from a somewhat impersonal God who relates to the nation as a whole to
a personal God who is perceived as having a close relationship with individual
people. This is a God who can be relevant to the non-religious in a way that
perhaps a God of Halacha and strict observances cannot. This is a God who
answers the prayers of the individual. If we look at popular Israeli music since
1967, we see God imagery increasingly entering the lyrics. These include visions
of angelic beings and of the afterlife in the widely popular “How Shall I Bless
Him” (Ma Avarech, 1968) .
So, where might the secular Israeli Jews be
heading in the future? Civil religion will continue and will be accompanied by
the persistence or even strengthening of personal eschatological and spiritual
beliefs to answer existential questions. Secular Israelis may turn to a variety
of religious options, including: Charismatic leaders. We already have an
indication of this in the personalities of holy men like the Baba Sali and the
Charismatic leaders such as these have personalized faith
for their followers as the incarnation of holiness into human
Messianic figures. Here we have the hassidic Chabad movement and
its rebbe, the late Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Some of his followers have
proclaimed him to be the Messiah or even God incarnate, and not just a holy man.
Since the concept of God incarnate in a human being is antithetical to Jewish
belief, an important line has been crossed, at least by some, in terms of what
might be considered non-heretical Jewish belief. If the possibility is
entertained that God can be incarnated in the form a human being, then the
theological argument shifts to a somewhat simpler one, i.e. not whether God
incarnates Himself in humans but in which human he chooses to do so.
brings us to another possible future direction for secular Israelis to take: The
development of a cult which would later progress into a sect that would have an
individual human being as its object of worship.
This individual could
occupy any place on the spectrum from charismatic leader to national/personal
messiah to the most theologically radical belief that he is God
Messianic Jews. It remains to be seen if increasing numbers of
Messianic Jews (followers of Jesus), the influx of former Soviet Union Christian
immigrants, the large numbers of Christian pilgrims and foreign workers will
have an effect on secular Israeli Jews.
The negative attitudes that Jews
have had toward a Christian world outlook may now be attenuated due to the
increasing perception that Islamists, rather than Christians, are the major
existential threat to the Jewish people and the State of Israel. This is
especially true in light of the important strategic alliance between Israel and
Although it seems unlikely that any significant
number of Israeli Jews would become “Hebrew Christians,” the Christian religious
motif of faith, belief, individual eternal salvation and imminent apocalyptic
eschatology could be an outside influence on the formation of a Judaism for
Feminist image religion: there is already a
following of Rahel Imenu (Mother Rachel) that has gained some publicity, with
reports of Israeli soldiers in combat having contacts with a woman who went
before them to warn of dangers on the battlefield. Some identified this
mysterious figure as a friendly Arab woman; others claimed that it was the
spirit or incarnation of Rachel, the matriarch herself.
There is increasing contact with the Hindu religion by way of young backpackers
who make post-army service treks to the Far East, as well from the growing
alliance and contact between Israel and India. These developments, too, may have
an influence on secular Israeli Jews.
In sum, the development of a Jewish
faith with a strong component of personal salvation seems to be becoming a
Attractive to non-religious or “secular” Israelis, this
Jewish religious trend would be comprised of definite spiritual or
eschatological beliefs but with a less intense emphasis on mandatory ritual
observances and laws.
This could be described as a kind of Judaism light
on personal observance while at the same time heavy on personal belief.